by Mike

Claude said that my photos of her property are very beautiful, and in fact they’re too beautiful. They make the valley look more beautiful than it is. Point taken, if the point is to reflect how a place actually looks (though it is gorgeous). But nobody has seen a place for real, and I’m applying for artistic license to show it how it could be presented, or maybe how I’ll remember it. “God, remember those clouds that one day?” Then the picture doesn’t do it justice. So we zoom out, we do a long exposure, we tinker with the photo on the computer. Voila, my memory in color.

We were in her hatchback driving up the steep hill from her house to her mom’s place on the ridge. It’s only a five minute walk, but it’s a climb and we were transporting crates of olives. I asked about the seasons. She doesn’t like the summers here – they’re too hot and the sun hits from directly above. But in fall there are yellows and oranges and the sun shines at an angle that brings relief. Spring is the same with the low sun but the valley pulses with a dozen different greens, which she named. I asked when spring will arrive. “March,” she said. If someone asked about Seattle I’d say, “Well, officially it’s March 21st but we don’t really have sunny days until April, but we do have some, but last year it snowed in May, so it’s not really until June that we see the sun consistently, and even then it’s probably not really until after the 4th of July.” I liked her answer more, “March.”

Claude said she used to have a camera and lenses and all that stuff and she’d take a lot of pictures. Then she realized she was going through her days looking at the world as if through the lens, “with the camera in my head,” so she stopped. I was horrified! Why stop when you can see things that way? She said it was no way to see the world. I argued, maybe unsuccessfully, that it’s a good thing to look for beauty (or at least something interesting) in every situation. She said it’s not reality. And I said that sometimes you have to forget that you’ve seen something a thousand times before.

I asked if she can still see the valley’s beauty after 40-something years of living here. She said that she can sometimes – because travelers come here to work on the farm, she gets to see it through their eyes as if for the first time.

They live an iconic life on this organic family farm. They live simply because that’s the way it is here. Meals are fresh with a few natural ingredients and they tend to goat births, rabbit shit, a 1000-pound stone wheel that mills olives, and so on. Azure asked if they live this way because they wanted to or because they had to. She answered, “Why would anyone have to?… I live like this because I want to take from the world as little as I can, I don’t want to destroy it.” Azure said it’s ironic that because they live so simply they can sell their products at a price only the rich can afford – hand-made organic olive oil tends to be pricey. I asked Claude about the prices, though, and she said that if the oil was truly priced to the labor, nobody would ever buy their oil. It would be too expensive for anyone.

They live close to the land. Claude frets when the weather is bad because it means that the olives will go another day unharvested or that other work will go undone – burn piles unburned, rabbit shit unshoveled, and howevermany other outside chores Azure and I haven’t learned about yet will have to wait. They use their olives in cooked dishes or on salads, or they use the oil for cooking and dressing pasta or just on bread. They use the olive tree leaves to feed the rabbits and goats, which they eat. The goats, however, are mainly used to clear brush so it doesn’t catch fire in the summer. From their beehives they make honey and use the wax for candles, they grow grapes for wine and vinegar, they grow all their own vegetables except carrots, which are apparently a pain in the ass, and they grow many different fruits and make jam. All the scraps are fed to chickens which produce eggs or are eaten. Their tap water comes from the mountain.

Margarite, when she’s cooking for us, will brag about how much of what we’re eating was grown and made right there, by her. One time she poured us wine and pointed to her biceps – “Made with my own arms.” I said I could taste them in the wine. She talks about the satisfaction that comes from pouring that wine. They live by their values. The inspector came by yesterday to make sure the farming practices continued to qualify as organic. I asked Claude how it went and she said that it’s easy to pass an inspection if you don’t cheat. She went on a much welcomed rant against the animal cruelty of which humans are capable when pursuing profit.

The farm has been in the family since “around” 1900 when Margarite’s dad bought it before getting married. He had two daughters and a son and back then they produced many different vegetables, animal products, flour, olive oil, and so on. Local guys in the valley who needed work would show up to work for them, neighbors lent help and the family returned the favor because, of course, everyone was in the farming “business.” They farmed to feed their families but also to sell products at the Nice markets. Margarite’s mom cooked meals and took care of the house while everyone else did whatever was needed on the land.

In 1944 Margarite’s brother died in the war and around that time her parents passed on as well. When they were married, Margarite’s husband moved onto the farm and they had four children, one of whom died young. One daughter married a Greek man and now runs a cafe on some beautiful Greek island, another daughter followed a man to the Pyrannees where she works with computers. That leaves Claude, the oldest, as the sole caretaker of the family farm.

Meanwhile, all the neighboring young people moved out of the valley when they got old enough to do so. Margarite says young people work with computers because they think farming is difficult. “Les temps change,” she says. What this means is that those young men from the valley who came to help on the farm are nowhere to be found. There’s one nice guy who’s here often, but that’s all, he’s not invested. I get the feeling he stayed around to take care of his 60-year-old father who has Alzheimers. All the other family farms in the valley are gone, largely because the young people left, but also because the same work is now industrialized and a bottle of hand-made organic olive oil can’t compete in price.

So here’s how the farm runs now: Margarite is 88, and she works up and down the treacherous olive orchard, works in the garden, works in the mills and cooks lunch and dinner for everyone. Claude – the only child who stayed – is somewhere in her late 40s and won’t have any children. Claude works her ass off and has Wwoofers like Az and I help whenever she can get the help. There’s nobody else, that’s it. The farm, which started as a family of five with farm-related services and labor throughout the valley, has been reduced to an island of two old women clinging to this too-fertile land. They can’t grow much of the produce they used to because there just aren’t enough hands to do the labor when it comes to fruition. But there is promise, Claude’s sister may be moving back from the Pyranees…

Azure and I can’t help wondering what’s going to happen – as it has to – when Margarite’s kitchen table isn’t the center of family life anymore, but a cold place. Will Claude and her sister stay here and try to run a farm alone with occasional help from transient, flaky travelers who idealize Provencial farms, who idealize this quaintness?

From farms like these springs the aesthetic I see in kitchens all over Seattle when I wash windows. It’s a much-idealized way of life, anybody would recognize it from our cultural narrative. We retell the story of the simple French farm when we buy soaps with a piece of lavender stuck in the label or when we put a picture of a French street on our wall, or when we buy something with a stylized French name that conjures country life. On the way down here from Paris I drove through so many shuttered small agricultural towns that I lost track. All had probably at one time been family farms but were now islands stranded in the middle of monoculture.

People do buy Claude & Margarite’s olive oil: In addition to a biologically superior product, those who can afford it are buying a relic from a cherished cultural narrative – the small, traditional family farm producing olive oil by hand in the South of France. The satisfaction Margarite had when she pointed to her bicep is a kind of satisfaction Azure and I don’t know whatsoever (it’s different from picking a tomato out of the garden), but we’re starting to get a little feeling for it with the olive oil. We’ve collected and sorted the olives, and we’ve tasted the oil they made the weekend before we arrived. There are steps in between, but we’re getting there, and in a couple weeks we might have a few bottles of oil in which we can taste our own arms.

The title of this post is “Verisimilitude,” which is literary term that refers to story’s “truth to life.” Indiana Jones doesn’t have much verisimilitude. Ernest Hemingway writes with it beautifully.

In our cultural narrative, when we tell the story of the French family farmer we praise and even worship a way of life that’s simple, quaint and beautiful – because it’s photographable. But it’s not true to life, the few people in France who do still live like this are vanishing.

And for us to tell an honest story of our own lives would be very difficult, I think, because our stories don’t accurately reflect what we value. What do we spend our time doing? What do we eat?

I can see why Claude thought my photos were too beautiful for the place – it probably seems ironic to extract and isolate the beautiful parts. And if something ironic is presented without irony it looks sad and flat. Irony, I think, demands that people share the joke.

Here’s a final thought: we just saw the slums in the north of Colombia and I wonder why, in such a fertile place, people would live in the slums instead of somewhere they could grow enough food to feed their families. What do they/we value that convinces them to follow that trajectory? We’re a strange species.


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